Of course today would have to be sunny. After a week of overcast weather, the sun sprang out just in time to enliven your weekend—and make a grave digger’s job harder. Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger—whose performance-art piece requires them to dig their own graves and then lie in them—have broken a serious sweat as they wedge their way into the dirt on the perimeter of The Works. “We didn’t realize the soil would be this compacted,” comments Miller. “It’s all rock and clay.” But he and his partner are taking it in stride. They’re very patient men.
Both wear long beards, white tee-shirts, and blue jeans. Both wield standard shovels. At high noon, each has excavated about a foot’s depth, and stands chipping away at a rectangular hole. At first, I didn’t know a) if they were the artists, or if the artists had hired some help, and b) if they’d want to talk. But it’s seeming okay. And since “Shellanbarger” is a hell of a handle, Culturephile will henceforth refer to these guys by first name. Meet Dutes and Stan.
I know I can read my program…but I’d like to just ask, what’s this work about? Is it a meditation on mortality? Or does it have something to do with the figure of speech, “you’re digging your own grave?”
The two seem surprised. “We haven’t been asked that question before,” says Stan. “What do you mean?” asks Dutes, leading me to flounder for an explanation. “Well, digging your own grave, typically meaning error, right? Like doing the wrong thing, then doing more wrong things—expending more effort to worsen your results. Or futility.”
“Hm,” they both respond. “No, it’s not really about that,” says Stan. “I guess no one’s asked that because we’ve only done this piece in Switzerland, so maybe there was enough of a language barrier, that they weren’t thinking about the English figure of speech. Maybe more people will ask that here. But—no. It’s really about me and him and our partnership. I was really inspired by two books by Jacques Derrida: The Gift of Death, and The Work of Mourning. In them, he talks about the responsibility and the rules of friendship, how as soon as you meet a new friend, there’s an understanding between you that one of you is going to die first. And it’s at that point, that you begin the mourning.”
I understand you two are romantic partners as well as art partners. Has doing this piece, and contemplating your and your partner’s mortality, changed your relationship?
Both respond in the affirmative. One says “Definitely,” and one says “Certainly.”
“Well, when we get about five feet down, we’re going to dig a small tunnel just here, and then as we each lie in our graves we’ll reach through and hold hands,” says Dutes. “While it’s a very sweet idea that we could hold hands in the grave, underground, of course it’s an impossibility.”
“Yes, it’s changed our relationship and how we think about each other,” says Stan, “but we’ve also been working together for a long time. Many of our pieces are autobiographical; still, we hope there’s enough there that an audience can connect to their own experience. We were part of an exhibit in Maine called Mindbending With The Mundane , about marriage equality, where we had images of ourselves with our beards tied together. And there’s one piece we do called Pink Tube, in which we’ve crocheted a pink tube of yarn, and when we exhibit the piece, we crochet on opposite ends of the tube. We only work on it in public—we don’t sit around at home crocheting it—but it’s now about 60 feet long. Of course the longer it gets—the longer we work together on it—the further apart we can get from one another. Sometimes when we exhibit it, we’re placed in different rooms. There’s generally a bittersweet aspect to our work.”
So several of your pieces have a long duration then. How do you handle that—do you go into a sort of meditative state? Do you get impatient, or fatigued?
Both laugh a little. “All sorts of things happen,” says Stan. “Sometimes it can get meditative, but then when people engage and ask questions, then it’s not meditative at that point. And of course there is fatigue. With the Pink Tube piece, we pretty much made a pact that we’ll work on it until one of us physically can’t anymore, due to—well, arthritis, or—”
“loss of limb,” Dutes interjects, laughing. “You know, not nice things to think about, but possible.”
“Sure. And when one of us dies, the other one will unravel the tube,” Stan finishes.
Along with the repetitive nature of the work, there must be a lot of repeat questions. What do you guys get asked all the time?
“‘What are you doing?’ is the biggest one,” says Dutes. “And then sometimes they’ll think they’re being a smartass and say, ‘Digging a grave?’ and when we say ‘yes,’ they have nothing else to say. Some people will tell us their own stories, too. Like with Pink Tube, people will tell us about their grandmother who crochets, or with this, people will tell us their own stories about death and graves. We welcome engagement with the public. There’s not the idea that it’s theatrical. There is no ‘fourth wall.’ Our work is concept-driven. We’re not presenting a story, per se, so there’s no feeling that the audience is disrupting anything.”
You mentioned marriage equality. Could the struggle represented in your work, along with the intimacy—be read as a statement on the struggle for marriage equality?
“We always feel unfortunate that our work is political. It’s just because we’re two men, that it’s political,” says Stan.
I say, “Sorry, I won’t frame it that way.”
“No,” says Dutes, “It doesn’t matter; because people will frame it that way. As soon as people read that it’s two men doing this, it becomes symbolic of something political as well.”
“Maybe not so much here in Portland,” I offer.
“Maybe not,” says Dutes. “That’d be great. This town does seem to have a lot of unisex bathrooms; that’s always a good sign.”
I thank Stan and Dutes for their time, and tell them I might be back later to snap a picture. “That’s fine,” they say. “We’ll be here all day.”